The pressure was mounting for Maki Pitolo. After an impressive first-round finish on the third season of Dana White’s Contender Series, Pitolo dropped his debut in a unanimous decision loss to Callan Potter and pulled out of what would’ve been his second UFC bout in early 2020 due to complications cutting to the welterweight limit.
A move back up to middleweight was in order, and it was the division in which Pitolo earned his contract in the first place. While Pitolo mostly competed at 170 pounds throughout his career, and Dana White mentioned his preference to see the Hawaiian at that weight, “Coconut Bombz” knew what was best for his body. He reaffirmed that at UFC 250, where he earned a second-round stoppage over Charles Byrd to secure his first win in the Octagon.
“To be honest, 170 was taking a real bad toll on my body and my health,” Pitolo told UFC.com. “It was making me hate the game because I was just cutting a hell of a lot of weight, so 185 lit a new fire under my butt, and we’re here now. We’re dancing, and I love it. Thankfully, I’m blessed with a solid team, solid management around me, and these guys put me right where I need to be. Right in the perfect spot.”
Pitolo stayed in shape after that win and now has a bout set with Darren Stewart on August 8. Competing for the second time during the coronavirus pandemic has its advantages, such as already feeling acclimated to the new normal with which everyone finds themselves working.
Even though Pitolo said he was able to bring training partners on the west side of Hawaii to help him prepare on a daily basis, there were the occasional days where he had to adapt during “quarantine camp 2.0.”
“Some days, it was just me getting that work in shadowboxing and moving around,” Pitolo said. “It’s a bit difficult when people aren’t open to coming in whenever you got training going on. They’re skeptical or maybe they’re busy, but I just made do with what I could get.”
Whereas his win over Byrd was his self-described “welcoming party,” Pitolo thinks this matchup with Stewart is his chance to announce himself as a real problem at 185 pounds. Stewart holds four UFC wins over the likes of Deron Winn and Eric Spicely, and even shares a commonality with Pitolo as he also finished Byrd in the second round in 2018.
There is a reignited sense of swagger to Pitolo ahead of this bout. Part of it surely stems from getting that inaugural victory out of the way, but it’s hard not to ignore how much better Pitolo says he feels as a middleweight. He admits that he was a bit of a “monster” when cutting to the welterweight limit, and moreover, he feels like the most dangerous version of himself without having to worry about shedding weight.
“I feel like I’m the total package at 185,” Pitolo said. “Number one, my thinking aspect of the game is all there. I can think way better, way clearer. My mindset is not all foggy. Two, I feel like I’m 100 percent. Even though you never go into a fight 100 percent, I feel like I’m at the best of my game at that certain time.”
Pitolo is hoping Stewart will stand and trade when they enter the cage, but he is well-aware of Stewart’s grappling and strong ground-and-pound attack, as well. In Pitolo’s two UFC bouts, his opponents have opened with grappling in hopes of negating the Hawaiian’s attack.
Against Byrd, Pitolo showed that he isn’t physically overmatched in the division, engaging in competitive wrestling exchanges before finding a home for the “pair of bombs” he carries in his 4-oz gloves.
Feeling much more established on the roster and at home in 185 pounds, Pitolo hopes his third bout in the UFC Apex is the one that turns heads to his credentials as a fighter and shows he is much, much more than a scrappy guy with a memorable nickname.
“I’m just looking to go out there to win and be dominant and play my cards right,” Pitolo said. “I’m always looking for the opening and looking for the finish, so I’m looking to do it in devastating fashion this time around and really wake up the middleweight division and let them know that I’m here.”